Could one drink a day shorten your life?

Glass of wine and pint of beer

A large new study has suggested that you are more at risk of dying or of a range of heart and circulatory conditions if you have as little as one alcoholic drink a day. We look behind the headlines.

13th April 2018

The research, led by the University of Cambridge and published in the Lancet, looked at how people’s drinking habits affect their health, in 19 high-income countries around the world.

The study, part-funded by the BHF, compared the drinking habits of more than 600,000 people, using data from 83 separate studies.

Drinking more than 12.5 units of alcohol per week (about five pints of average-strength beer or five medium glasses of mid-strength wine) was found to be associated with increased overall risk of death, stroke, heart failure, fatal aortic aneurysm, and coronary heart disease, apart from non-fatal heart attacks.

Since 2016 UK alcohol guidelines have recommended drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol per week for both men and women

Although non-fatal heart attacks were found to be slightly less likely in people who drank alcohol, this benefit would be outweighed by the increased risk of other forms of heart and circulatory diseases, including heart failure and stroke.

The findings are broadly in line with UK alcohol guidelines, which since 2016 have recommended drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol per week for both men and women. But this study also suggests that whatever level you drink at, even if it’s under the guidelines, drinking even less will help reduce your health risks.

The study found that on average, drinking the equivalent of 10 pints of beer or glasses of wine each week was linked with one to two years shorter life expectancy. Having 18 drinks or more per week was linked with four to five years shorter life expectancy. 

This research could help countries looking to set or review their drinking guidelines, which vary around the world.

Strengths of the research

The large size and design of this study make its findings more reliable and applicable to high-income countries around the world. It also attempted to control for factors that might make the results misleading, such as having pre-existing heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, or smoking.

Another strength of this study is that it involved a large number of people who didn’t have pre-existing heart and circulatory diseases, so it’s likely to be relevant to the wider population. The participants had to be current drinkers and were followed up for at least one year (most participants were followed up for between 5 and 18 years). 

Weaknesses of the research

The study doesn’t take into account the possibility of accompanying mental disorders, such as dementia, which could explain why people reduced their alcohol consumption over the follow-up period. It also didn’t take into account mental health problems that are linked with increased alcohol consumption, such as depression.

Participants’ alcohol intake was also self-reported so people may have under-reported the amount they drink.

The BHF view

We should always remember that alcohol guidelines should act as a limit, not a target, and try to drink well below this threshold

Victoria Taylor

Victoria Taylor, Senior Dietician at the British Heart Foundation said: “This powerful study may make sobering reading for countries that have set their recommendations at higher levels than the UK, but this does seem to broadly reinforce government guidelines for the UK.

“This doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels – many people in the UK regularly drink over what’s recommended. We should always remember that alcohol guidelines should act as a limit, not a target, and try to drink well below this threshold.”

How was the research reported?

The research received widespread news coverage, including in BBC News, ITV News, Express, Evening Standard, the i and others. Most of the coverage was accurate, although the i chose to focus on the fact that Italy, Portugal and Spain have recommended alcohol limits which are higher than the UK and describing the UK’s as some of the “strictest in the world” – although it did go on to point out that the research supports these lower guidelines.

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